Gail-Nina Anderson checks out BALTIC’s latest shows and pulls out four plums.
Once upon a time, even within the living memory of BALTIC-goers, contemporary art prided itself on an ivory tower approach, where formal qualities were headlined over content, visual language was apparently universal and the essential subject matter of art was art. This attitude tended to open up dialogues that could be circular and paradoxically one-sided - art is art is art and exploring it requires a rather refined sensibility. Over the past twenty years, however, BALTIC has been one of the public venues most open to challenging the restrictions of this view without diluting the intensity of visual experience that, at its best, it can promote. Art is now about the universal within the diverse, the specific and the narrative, encouraging conversations not just about formal values but also about time, place and circumstances. Art produced today is, inevitably, a reflecting pool for anxieties about a world where the loss of certainties has led not so much towards freedom as towards conflict, displacement, environmental crisis and a shattered relationship with the past. This could potentially be seen as a negative, but when we walk into the gallery now we tend to become part of a conversation to which, as participants as well as viewers, we might contribute.
Over the winter BALTIC is hosting four different shows that should open doors and find a way to express feelings – even uncomfortable ones – with reference to human experience and our place in a challenged world. I start with Caroline Caycedo’s Land of Friends because its overview of twenty years’ work chimes well with BALTIC’s own anniversary. The ways of water (including the River Tyne) can signify boundaries that are also invitations, natural markers that define memory but are open to harsh re-direction that swamps the balance of this relationship. Her work contributes to the construction of environmental memory as a fundamental space for climate and social justice. It challenges us to understand nature not as a resource to be exploited, but as a living and spiritual entity that unites people beyond borders. The sense of involvement lies not simply in the bigger issues but also in immediate, hands-on communication: over the summer the gallery invited the public to contribute hand-made items for display in the exhibition until January 2023, when their owners will be able to exchange them for different objects brought in by someone else.
Sahej Rahal’s Mythmachine approaches communication from the angle of play, of interaction between the organic and the constructed, including a new body of work conceived as an immersive virtual playground that responds to chaos, luck and chance. Primarily a storyteller, the artist weaves together fact and fiction to create counter-mythologies that question narratives shaping the present. His myth-world takes the shape of sculptures, performances, films, paintings, installations, and AI programmes. He draws from various sources ranging from legends to science fiction, creating scenarios where beings emerge from the cracks in our civilisation. “Mythmachine” comes from the future and will transform and expand in response to players. It is a site for the rehearsal of cohabitation between human and non-human systems through speech, song and rhythm.
By contrast, Jala Wahid’s Conflagration (work pictured) has evolved from very specific circumstances, presenting a new body of work exploring the relationship between Britain and Kurdistan through the lens of oil, conceived here as the symbolic material through which nationalism, statelessness, colonialism and Kurdish identity are explored, while focusing on the Baba Gurgur oil well whose contentious location highlights a fraught relationship between history, politics and natural resources. “Conflagration” centres around a single sculpture of the Salvia Spinosa flower, presented as the embodiment of the Baba Gurgur gusher when it was first struck in 1927, and poignantly relevant as a new-to-science species of the Salvia plant was recently discovered in Kurdistan.
Closer to home, yet related in their similar consideration of land and place as a complex layering of relationships, the twelve artists showing in Hinterlands
will explore this concept through innovative artistic processes and approaches, evoking the nature of materials and contexts - geological, biological and social, shaped and hardened by history – as routes whereby we experience and define our landscape. The idea of hinterlands – the land away from the coast or the banks of a river – is at the core of this exhibition, which explores what lies beyond the visible or known, the complex histories, mythologies, legacies and potential futures for custodianship of the land. Global conversations around colonialism, capitalism and climate emergency can thus be activated via what is local to us, through new and existing works by artists connected with the north-east of England, bringing us back to that beginning/conclusion wherein contemporary art has opened itself up to a range of concerns that need airing on all possible platforms and visualising in a way that provokes our response.
Carolina Caycedo: Land of Friends, until 29 Jan 2023
Hinterlands (various artists), 22 October – 30 April 2023
Jala Wahid: Conflagration, 22 October – 30 April 2023
Sahej Rahal: Mythmachine, until 3 September 2023
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.